Spurned by Chinese businesses, Georgia hires rival’s top recruiter

Story highlights:

  • After losing out to South Carolina in its pursuit for a number of Chinese investment opportunities, including a $500 million Volvo auto plant, Georgia hired South Carolina's top Chinese business recruiter, John Ling.
  • Georgia once had its own successes in attracting business from China, but those eventually faded away.
  • Ling will join the state's economic development commissioner and Gov. Nathan Deal's chief of staff on a trade mission to China and Japan that begins Saturday.
  • Georgia is spending $490,000 this year to lure Chinese investors, including Ling's salary of $275,000.

Georgia, after a decade of pummeling by South Carolina in the competition for lucrative Chinese investment and jobs, stole a page recently from the winner’s playbook: It hired the Palmetto State’s top Chinese business recruiter.

John Ling, widely credited with attracting a half-billion dollars worth of Chinese factories — not including the $500 million Volvo auto plant that South Carolina won in May, much to Georgia’s dismay — began working for the Georgia Department of Economic Development on Aug. 1.

He will join Chris Carr, the agency’s commissioner, and two dozen government and corporate officials Saturday on a two-week recruiting trip to China and Japan. And he won’t come cheap: a salary of $275,000 a year — twice the amount paid to Gov. Nathan Deal.

Georgia needs help. After a flurry of Chinese activity a decade ago, the jobs and investment slowed to a trickle. Georgia is something of a Chinese investment laggard in the Southeast, besting only Florida in overall foreign direct investment. Now, though, despite its recent economic slowdown, China is poised to invest up to $200 billion in the United States by 2020, according to the Rhodium Group.

“Georgia, and the city of Atlanta, has much to offer in terms of access, population, the state’s GDP and Fortune 500 headquarters, (amenities) that, frankly speaking, South Carolina does not have,” Ling, 47, said in an interview this week. “These are great advantages. I’m confident that, together with allies in Georgia and Atlanta, I will be able to bring good targets to Georgia.”

First success came in 1999

Ling, a native of Chongqing and a naturalized U.S. citizen, earned an MBA from Charleston Southern University and, during a private-sector stint in South Carolina, helped the state land the Haier Group in 1999. The initial investment: $30 million. The product: small refrigerators. The significance: substantial because it stamped South Carolina on China’s foreign-investment map.

And it also persuaded the state to hire Ling. He started as the Commerce Department’s Asian trade manager, helping South Carolina companies export. He opened the state’s first China office in Shanghai in 2005. He had a hand in nearly 30 Chinese manufacturing investments, including Techtronic Industries (power tools, 1,200 jobs); the Keer Group (textiles, 500 jobs); and Uniscite Inc. (plastic films, 100 jobs).

“He’s a sharp guy and will be very professional in selling our state,” said Henry Yu, an Asia finance expert with Fifth Third Bank in Atlanta. “If people assign ratings, with 10 being tops, then our Georgia team before John would be at most a four. With John, it would probably be a nine.”

Ling twice met the chairman of Zhejiang Geely Holding, which owns Volvo, about four years ago to pitch South Carolina for an automotive plant. Most of the negotiations, though, took place in Sweden, Volvo’s historical home. Georgia offered its largest-ever incentives package, including tax breaks and a training center, to lure the automaker and a possible 4,000 jobs. But South Carolina, with $200 million in incentives, bested Georgia yet again.

On May 11, a few hours after Volvo publicly announced its decision, a frustrated Deal said, “It’s pretty obvious that states like South Carolina have had more success with Chinese companies like Volvo than the state of Georgia has.”

Early promise faded in Georgia

Nearly a decade ago Georgia was poised to ride a wave of Chinese investment. A soy sauce maker opened a factory in Newnan. A construction machinery maker announced a factory and 500 jobs in Newnan a year later. In 2009, a business incubator opened a retail showroom in Midtown.

The soy sauce factory and the incubator shut down. The construction equipment company never lived up to its billing. Georgia today tallies 47 Chinese establishments employing 1,000 people with a total investment of $315 million, according to Rhodium, which analyzes Chinese economic activity in the U.S.

Fewer Chinese companies have located in South Carolina, but overall investment topped $450 million through 2014, Rhodium reported. Volvo adds another feather to the state’s investment cap.

Georgia has followed a rather peculiar China strategy. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue opened an investment office in Beijing in 2008 only to have Deal five years later move the office to Qingdao, a relative backwater where no other state keeps an office. Georgia also mans an office in Shanghai to help the state’s manufacturers and farmers export to the world’s second-largest market.

Seth Jacobs, a Georgia State graduate from Marietta who had lived in China for a decade, moved from Shanghai to Qingdao to run the investment office. His $90,000-a-year contract was not renewed earlier this year.

Ling lives in Greenville, S.C., where his daughter is a high school senior. He’ll travel frequently to China and likely use the Qingdao office until its lease expires next year. He says Shanghai is a better spot for business because it’s “easier there to connect with people.” He’s also adamant that a successful Chinese recruiter should be a native speaker who’s familiar with the private sector, too.

“One thing I was very impressed with is that (Georgia’s) leadership is very open in admitting their lack of progress. They feel they could have done a better job,” Ling said.

“I’ve been working on the China market since 1994,” he continued. “Once I’m approached by a company that wants to invest in the states, I have the ability to pretty much tell if it makes sense for the company or for the state. The last thing I want is to bring a project that doesn’t work well for the company or the state.”

Carr’s delegation, which includes Deal’s chief of staff, will stop in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Qingdao and Shanghai before heading to Japan. Georgia is spending $490,000 this year, which includes Ling’s salary, to lure Chinese investors.

“John’s got a great reputation and had concrete results in South Carolina, so when the opportunity presented itself, we seized that opportunity and we’re excited about it,” Carr said Wednesday after an Economic Development Department board meeting. Business in China “is a relationship business, and John has such great relationships.”

A spokeswoman with the South Carolina Department of Commerce, Ling’s ex-employer, said, “We do not comment on personnel matters, but we do wish John all the best.”